San Beda’s academic community is in earnest about its bid for university status. That raises the question: What for? The Philippines abounds in universities, too many, in fact, for education’s good! As in many things, we have outdone ourselves in creating universities. We have more per square kilometer than many more prosperous countries. For sure then, it will not do for Bedans to aim at just adding to the list of universities. But a Benedictine university—that is what is so exciting and promising about this prospect, the promise of a gift to the Philippines “ex corde ecclesiae…from the heart of the Church.” How does one teach the world that one is strongest on his knees? How does one imbue a society over which the arrogant prevail with the virtue of humility, born of “ora et labora…prayer and work?”
Towards the end of the Prologue to his Regula (The Rule), which is the great Benedict’s legacy not only to Western monasticism but to the world, he writes: “Therefore, we intend to establish a school for the Lord’s service. In drawing up its regulations, we hope to set down nothing harsh, nothing burdensome. The good of all concerned, however, may prompt us to a little severity in order to correct faults and to safeguard love. Do not be daunted immediately by fear and run away from the road that leads to salvation. It is bound to be narrow at the outset. But as we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God’s commandments, our heaves overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love.” Although, by “school,” he meant the formation of the monk that the Rule was to bring about, there is every reason to read this passage as the basic charter of a Benedictine university: That its sons and daughters, humbly aware of their failings and zealous in charity, may tread the path of the Gospel.”
Mendiola is not the quietest place in Manila. In fact, it is the favorite assembly point of all who have gripes against Malacañang’s tenant. But in one corner of the entire compound of San Beda College is the Abbey of Our Lady of Montserrat— an enclave of peace, quiet, contemplation and prayer. As such, the Monastery is a constant reminder to the bustling academic community just outside its doors that for all the learning that may issue from classrooms and halls, there is much that is taught by the silence of the heart, where God can speak in whispers! And when a monk passes by —easily identified by the cowl that drapes over his shoulders —we are all reminded of a “kingdom not of this world” that gives all our labors and toil in this world enduring worth and value.
Cuthbert, writing of the death of Venerable Bede, the College’s namesake, describes his holy passing:
At three o’clock, Bede said to me, “I have a few treasures in my private chest, some pepper, napkins, and a little incense. Run quickly and bring the priest of our monastery, and I will distribute among them these little presents that God has given me.”
When the priests arrived he spoke to them and asked each one to offer Masses and prayers for him regularly. They gladly promised to do so.
That was all that Bede had —pepper, napkins and incense —and all that he asked for were the prayers of his brothers. This is the abnegation that preaches the Gospel, that makes the monk ever a light shining on a hill. This is the poverty that contrasts itself markedly with the crass consumerism that makes victims of us all. This is what should draw the young to a Benedictine university. Yes, the skills of commerce, the intricacies of business, the challenges of economics will and should be expertly taught and thoroughly learned, but the spirit that should pervade all should be an option for “evangelical poverty.” Only in this way will a Benedictine university have a wealth to offer that other universities do not!
Writing on “The Essence of a University in Our Changing Times,” Francis Gevers, a Leuven philosopher whose classes it was my great fortune to attend, posited:
“A university does not earn the title ‘Catholic’ merely by giving religious instruction and by making it possible for the students to attend Mass. A school, in order to be Christian, ought to produce student committed to the cause of Christianity which both Church and the world need. Such a Christianity should be an apostolic Christianity, because a Catholicism which is not apostolic is dead Catholicism. Instruction and learning are ‘musts’, but they are by far insufficient to form and train apostolic-minded Christians of the type that is needed in the present situation of the Church—a Church in mission.”
While a Benedictine university will be responsive to other indicia of excellence, this concept of a Catholic university will be the ultimate outcome by which its success is measured, its existence justified.